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US POLITICS ANALYSIS

Aid to Israel and Ukraine distracts a fractious US Congress from the federal budget

Aid to Israel and Ukraine distracts a fractious US Congress from the federal budget
From left: A protester waves a giant Ukrainian flag. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Clemens Bilan) | US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images) | Israeli troops and military vehicles along the Israel-Gaza border. (Photo:EPA-EFE / Hannibal Hanschke)

The current crisis in the Middle East and aid to Israel, along with a looming fight over aid to Ukraine, plus passing a federal budget before time runs out is confounding the US Congress in unprecedented ways.

Sometimes an urgently hoped-for solution just makes things worse. In the US Congress, the Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives, following weeks of indecision after the previous Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was booted out by a revolt of the so-called Freedom Caucus, finally came up with an electable candidate for speaker.

Their eventual choice was Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson – even though a fair number of other members and most especially Democrats – only vaguely knew who he was, beyond thinking of him as a quiet backbencher and theocratic wannabe who had been in Congress less than a decade.

In recent years, the Speaker has been likened to a political traffic cop who determines which proposed legislation may advance and which will be tossed into the ashcan of history. Now that he holds the job, Johnson’s biggest challenges include leading his fractious House and Republican caucus to settle on some kind of budgetary settlement before the current continuing resolution for the federal budget expires in mid-November.

But now entangled in this are even more contentious things such as aid to Israel and Ukraine, border security enhancements, a clutch of ultra-conservative social policy ideas and even potential military sales to Taiwan.

Loyalty not guaranteed

It is important to remember that one crucial difference between the US system and a parliamentary government is that party discipline is not an absolute, guaranteed reality. Yes, the majority party’s Speaker does have significant control over committee appointments (especially committee chairmanships) and access to election campaign funds raised by the congressional caucus’ leadership, but simultaneously they have a more difficult time enforcing discipline on specific individual members who take stances contrary to an official party position, such as budget votes.

As a result, a very real task of the Speaker and his team comes in cajoling individual members (especially in close votes) to stay loyal to the leadership — and, in return, promising love, or more tangible rewards, for those who remain faithful.

As a result, with the internal disputes roiling the Republican caucus, the close division between the two parties in the House, and the fact that the Democrats control the Senate (also by a very slender margin), reaching legislative agreements that can be forwarded to the president for his signature (or veto) has become hard to achieve.

While aid to Israel is generally seen to be supported by congressional Democrats and Republicans in both houses and would be voted on favourably on its own, continued military and economic aid to Ukraine is much more contentious among the “Freedom Caucus”, isolationist Republican representatives (although not necessarily for most Republicans in the Senate). The opponents’ argument seems to be that the US should tend to domestic issues first and let the Europeans solve the Ukrainian war, and in any case, Ukraine is far away and no one really knows how much all this is going to cost. 

So far, Republican legislators in the House have passed an Israeli aid measure, but it was one coupled with reductions in new funds for the national taxation authority – the IRS – a body that admittedly has few fervent admirers. The measure was dead upon its handing over to the Senate. The measure’s critics argue this plan doesn’t save money since weaker tax enforcement will mean high-income earners will be that much more likely to underpay their taxes, making such a budget cut a net negative for tax revenue. This simply increases the budget deficit — something supposedly an anathema for those Republican “Freedom Caucus” members.

Accordingly, efforts by President Biden, Democratic congressional leaders and some Republicans to build an omnibus aid measure that would include aid to Israel, Ukraine, military sales to Taiwan and enhanced border support has, so far, foundered.

In some ways it has also been handicapped because of the even more urgent need to reach some form of overall budget agreement – even though that is even more contested than those various foreign aid measures. If Congress does not reach an agreement by mid-November, the US is back to the turmoil of a government shutdown again.

Democrats divided 

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, an ongoing Israeli aerial retaliation in Gaza is now paired with ground forces encircling Gaza City. Their mission is to destroy Hamas’ network of underground redoubts and to find and then rescue the 200-plus hostages taken by Hamas. But the resulting death and devastation have captured social media and monopolised international news channels and the visceral impact of this has triggered both a desperate population’s movement southward away from the immediate zone of combat, but also thousands of casualties and major destruction in Gaza. 

This, in turn, has ignited a wave of large, increasingly angry demonstrations in cities around the world against Israel’s military actions. In those demonstrations, some elements have been chanting the inevitable “from the river to the sea” mantra — a placeholder for some for the destruction of Israel as an independent polity, echoing Hamas’ positions. To an unprecedented extent, circumstances in Gaza are also feeding an increasingly antagonistic climate on US university campuses, along with a growing roster of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts as well.

To a considerable degree, the violence in the Middle East has increasingly had ripples within the Democratic Party, even as Republicans still seem largely solidly behind Israel and sending aid to that nation. Meanwhile, in polling data, among what is usually termed the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in tandem with younger and minority Democratic voters, support for Israel and for the Biden administration’s policies – “Israel we’ve got your back” encouragement to Israel to avoid civilian casualties and pushing support for a humanitarian pause – is heading south. Ironically, many Republican Party supporters, but not most of its elected senators, seem ambivalent towards backing Ukraine, as Biden has said, for “as long as it takes”.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen explained over the weekend in Axios: “No issue threatens to break President Biden’s fragile Democratic coalition like Israel’s response to the Hamas terrorist attack.

“Why it matters: Infighting is spreading, slowly but meaningfully, at every layer of the Democratic Party over Biden’s full-throated support of Israel. It runs much deeper than college campus protests or caustic comments from elected officials.

“Step back and survey the split: Many liberal Jews are furious that so many progressive Democrats aren’t more outraged by the slaughter of family and friends back in Israel. Some are threatening to leave the party. Pro-Palestinian Democrats are outraged at the rising death tolls in Gaza made possible by Biden’s posture. Biden’s administration and political operation are getting tense and growing more deeply divided. 

“Nearly 20% of the DNC’s roughly 300 employees signed a letter asking their boss to demand a ceasefire, Axios’ Alex Thompson reports. A junior State Department foreign affairs officer sent a massive internal email to organise a ‘dissent cable’ on the administration’s Israel policy – and alleged on social media that Biden is ‘complicit in genocide’ in Gaza.” 

By contrast, Republicans are mostly united in supporting Israel and have been so, consistently, for many years. Those whose support base includes large populations of evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists are especially so inclined.

Impact on 2024

Such divided opinions by potential voters may have significant impacts on congressional elections in various districts a year from now, and especially for President Joe Biden’s candidacy in his re-election bid. The most recent polling seems to be revealing that the Biden re-election bid has some real weaknesses among voters along economic issues. 

The irony is that while by most measures, the economy is strong and continues to gain strength, voters are usually most influenced by more personal kitchen table economics – interest rates are rising; petrol prices remain high; inflation is, while receding, still a worry.

The Biden White House’s efforts to deliver a message about adult stewardship of the economy and environmentally rational growth for the future have not really clicked with many. Polling continues to say many potential voters still believe the Republicans and Donald Trump represent the right people to lead the economy. And, of course, the question of the president’s age remains on the table.

But the challenge from the Gaza and Ukraine crises — neither of which seems likely to come to an end by November 2024 — is that it could paint Biden as weak in national and global leadership. For some, too, there remains the shadow of the botched final evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan. 

Of course, most voters have not yet really focused on the election, let alone who will actually be the Republican nominee, even if Donald Trump has a strong lead. That, in turn, eventually may hinge on whether Trump as a candidate can be successful while campaigning from multiple courtrooms or a holding cell.

Helping set out the key foreign policy challenge for the current president, as reported in the New York Times, former President Barack Obama recently set out “a complex analysis of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, telling thousands of former aides that they were all ‘complicit to some degree’ in the current bloodshed”.

Speaking on the Pod Save America podcast, hosted by his former staffers, Obama said: “I look at this, and I think back, ‘What could I have done during my presidency to move this forward, as hard as I tried?’.”

“But there’s a part of me that’s still saying, ‘Well, was there something else I could have done?’.”

According to the New York Times, “Mr Obama acknowledged the strong emotions the war had raised, saying that ‘this is century-old stuff that’s coming to the fore’. He blamed social media for amplifying the divisions and reducing a thorny international dispute to what he viewed as sloganeering.”

The challenge in US politics is how the current crises in Gaza and Ukraine will – or can – resolve within the next year, let alone how crises will continue for the actual protagonists in the conflict and some long-suffering populations. As civilian casualties rise and fighting has no easy-to-see conclusion in either crisis, the struggle in American politics will be whether a divided Congress can bestir itself to deal with these challenges in some decisive way in some form of cooperation with the incumbent president.

Those things, in turn, will have a significant impact on how the American election plays in 2024. DM

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